Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Stolen Dutch Golden Age paintings in the hands of Ukrainian nationalist militia

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015

On the night of January 10th, 2005, four burglars broke into the Westfries Museum in Hoorn, northwestern Netherlands, and stole 21 paintings, the night the museum celebrated its 125th anniversary, four people stole 24 paintings and drawings and 70 silver objects from the museum’s collection. The market value of the stolen pieces was estimated at 10 million euros at the time, but believe it or not, the paintings weren’t insured. The museum had an excellent security system which did not appear to be damaged, but the alarm never went off and the burglary was only discovered by employees the next morning who arrived to find the place in a shambles with display cases shattered and paintings cut out of the frames. The damage to the museum facilities was in the millions of euros.

The stolen paintings date to the 17th and 18th centuries and include portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, still lifes, allegories and maritime scenes, by well-known Dutch Golden Age artists like Jan van Goyen, Jacob Waben and Matthias Withoos. The burglars had suspiciously fine taste, selecting the most important paintings in the collection which suggests careful premeditation. This is usually where the eternal chimera of the museum heist gets bruited about, ie, that the theft was commissioned by an underworld collector or dealer with a specific looting list, a perpetually popular theory that never seems to pan out in real life. Art thieves do the research and pick the most valuable stuff because they think they can sell it for the best price. That doesn’t mean they have a shadowy villain in a volcano lair directing their movements, or even a sure buyer lined up. More often than not they wind up sitting on the unmovable works for years because nobody wants to touch pieces that are so obviously hot.

That appears to have been the pattern in the Westfries Museum heist too. For years museum and city officials sought the paintings to no avail. Last year they finally got their first big break in the case: a picture of one of the stolen paintings was found on a Ukrainian website. In July of this year, two people representing the ultra-right Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) militia informed Dutch embassy officials in Kiev that their battalion had all 24 of the stolen paintings. They offered proof in the form of a classic from the kidnapper’s handbook: a picture of one of the paintings next to a current Ukrainian newspaper. They also claimed to have the stolen silverware, but they made no offer proof.

The militia men said the paintings were discovered in a villa that once belonged to cronies of the former Ukrainian president. Brand finds this backstory just a tad too convenient to be believable since it relies on the militia just happening to find a treasure trove of art stolen a decade ago in the home of its political enemies. Boris Goemenjoek, deputy commander of the volunteer OUN battalion, offered the art. He was acting under orders from the Oleg Tjagnibok, leader of the far right nationalist political party Svoboda. Brand believes Valentin Nalivaitsjenko, former head of the Ukrainian secret service is also involved.

The militia was willing to arrange a return of the paintings on condition that the Ukrainian police not be involved (page two of the kidnapper’s handbook). The embassy told the Dutch police and the municipal authorities of Hoorn were given the chance to negotiate directly with the militia. Aware that dealing with armed criminal organizations was a tad beyond their purview, the city officials enlisted the aid of a professional art investigator Arthur Brand.

Brand noticed during the initial interactions that the present owners had a completely unrealistic idea of the value of the stolen paintings. They estimated the value at 50 million euros. Brand presented a research report to his Ukrainian contacts that showed that, based on recent auction proceeds of comparable works of the same painters, the entire collection should be estimated at a minimum of 250,000 euros and a maximum of 1.3 million euros, if in good condition. Because the latter did not appear to be the case, he estimated the current market value at no more than 500,000 euros.

On behalf of the municipality of Hoorn, Brand offered the militia a compensation, but received no response to the offer. The other party contended that a 5 million euro finder’s fee was in order and would not settle for less whereupon the municipality urged the ministry of Foreign Affairs to attempt to expedite the case along diplomatic channels. Talks on the highest political levels were held but to no avail. At present, there are serious indications that the current owners of the stolen art are attempting to sell it to others. Further research by Brand shows that other highly placed individuals are operating behind the scenes of the volunteer battalion. The stolen art is used as a pawn in a non-transparent Ukrainian political arena riddled with internal power struggles, favouritism and corruption.

With the art in danger of being sold out from under them, the Hoorn municipality and Westfries Museum have decided to drop the proverbial dime on these thieves. They’ve gone to the press and are making as big a stink as possible to stymie the OUM’s attempts at arranging a quick sale.

According to the museum director Ad Geerdink: “We have done everything we can and have reached a dead end. Now that it seems that the art works are disappearing again, we want to sound the alarm to let potential buyers know that they are dealing with stolen art, to give a correct representation of the actual value of the art works, but also to send a signal that these art works only belong in Hoorn. They are invaluable to the story we are telling about the extremely riveting period of the Golden Age in West Friesland.”

The Dutch Foreign Ministry has brought up the issue with Ukrainian politicians “at the highest level” and all this publicity might just light enough of a fire under them to burn through the power struggles, favoritism and corruption. The Ukrainian ambassador to The Netherlands contacted museum officials yesterday to tell them he would work to recover the works.

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Cake baked for Empress Sisi 118 years ago on display

Monday, December 7th, 2015

Leaving the 1924 Vanderbilt wedding cake in its dust, a cake baked for 118 years ago for Austria’s Empress Elisabeth, aka Sisi, has gone on display in an Italian castle in Merano, Italy. She wasn’t staying at the castle in September of 1897 when the cake was made. The hardened brown mass that today looks more like the carbonized loafs of bread found at Herculaneum than a cake or tart as we know them was served to Sisi at an inn in the South Tyrolean town of Nals, 10 miles south of the resort town of Merano, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

This was her fourth visit to Merano. She spent the last decades of her life hopping from health spa to resort town to health spa ostensibly incognito, but of course everyone knew who she was. The Empress was well known as one of Europe’s greatest beauties. When she arrived at the Sonnenwirt inn in Nals, the innkeeper was starstruck. She served her what must have been her prized cake. The Empress, who was famously obsessed with preserving her slim figure, took only the thinnest slice. The innkeeper preserved the rest of the cake in a glass container and it was passed down through the generations.

Fanz Mair, the son of the original innkeeper moved just a mile from Merano to the town of Lagundo where he ran and still runs the Kappelgutt guest house. The cake went with him. Franz and Walburga Mair recently decided to donate their family heirloom to the Trauttmansdorff Castle in Merano which is home to the Touriseum, a wonderfully meta museum dedicated to the history of tourism. They wanted the cake to have a more secure home and experts tending to its preservation. They also wanted it to be on public view in a context connected to Empress Sisi’s visits to Merano.

The Empress stayed at the Trauttmansdorff Castle during two of her four visits to the resort town, the first time in 1870-1, the second in 1889. These weren’t quick stopovers. In 1870, Sisi and her entourage took up multiple rooms on the second floor of the castle for eight months. She was ensconced in the west wings rooms with the greatest views of the bucolic Adige Valley. Her bedroom was the oldest room in the castle with ornamental wooden ceilings and frescoes dating to 1564. Meanwhile, her sickly two-year-old daughter Marie Valerie stayed with her nanny in three rooms in the southeast wing.

Sisi’s second stay at the castle was, she would later write, an attempt to recapture the happier days of the first visit. She was in mourning from the death of her son Rudolf in the scandalous murder-suicide at Mayerling just six months before. She occupied the same rooms on the second floor, although this time around the 16th century frescoed room was her dressing room instead of her bedroom. Her intent was stay for months, enjoying the hiking trails and salutary Tyrolean air, but her trip was cut short after six weeks by a terrible storm.

It was the Empress’ first visit which really put Merano on the map as a health resort for the rich and titled. Little Marie Valerie recovered quickly from her illness and the word quickly spread about the salutary benefits of a visit to the South Tyrol town. Trauttmansdorff Castle became a magnet for high society and was booked solid for decades. There wouldn’t even be a Touriseum in the castle if it weren’t for Sisi because she’s the one who first made Merano a locus of tourism in the late 19th century, establishing its healthful reputation, appealing to the fashionable crowd and to the multitudes who just wanted to follow in the footsteps of such a huge celebrity.

Since 2008, the castle has hosted a permanent exhibition dedicated to Sisi in the rooms she once occupied. There are sculptures of her in the beautiful formal gardens she enjoyed during her visits and marked hiking trails for the Empress Sisi fans who still want to walk in her footsteps. Some of her personal belongings — a fan, a parasol, a robe — are on display in the castle. The cake now joins them, a blackened flatbread on a cake stand in a glass display case.

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Met acquires Crown of the Andes

Sunday, December 6th, 2015

The Crown of the Andes, a rare surviving example of 17th and 18th century colonial Spanish gold work, the oldest and largest collection of emeralds in the world and the oldest surviving emerald and gold crown or tiara, has been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Famous and coveted for at least three centuries, the crown has been in private hands since 1936. It has gone on display at special events like the Great Lakes Exposition in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1937, the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the 1957 American Gem Society convention in Philadelphia and most recently, at the
Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Sacred Spain exhibition in late 2009, early 2010. Now that it’s part of the Met’s collection, it is on permanent display for the first time in its life.

The crown was never worn by a temporal ruler. This crown was made for a more saintly head: that of the statue of Our Lady of the Assumption in Popayan, Colombia. Popayan is a city high up in the Andres, 5,700 feet above sea level, founded in 1537 by Sebastian de Belalcazar during his search for the mythical city of Eldorado. The was no city of gold to be found, but tons of gold moved through Popayan to Cartagena and thence to Spain, and gold and gems were extensively mined in the area.

In the late 1580s and 1590s, a smallpox epidemic cut a deadly swath through Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil and Peru. An estimated two million South American Indians died in this outbreak and subsequent ones through 1610. Entire cultures were annihilated and cities depopulated, including some towns neighboring Popayan. The town itself was spared, a miracle attributed to the intercession of the Virgin Mary. The Bishop of Popayan rallied the populace to donate gold and gemstones to create a crown of heavenly beauty worthy to adorn the head of the statue.

The people donated pounds of gold which was melted into a block and the frame of the crown carved out of it. They also donated rough emeralds which were table-cut in a simple rectangular shape or pear cut. The total weight of the crown today is 5.3 pounds. The Met puts the number of emeralds at 443 with an estimated total weight of 846.15 carats. The largest emerald in the crown is a 24-carat stone known as the Atahualpa Emerald. According to lore, it was one of many emeralds taken from the Inca emperor Atahualpa when he was captured by Francisco Pizarro in 1532.

Legend has it 24 goldsmiths using Indian and Spanish techniques created the crown in six years, that is was finished by 1599, but the Met’s research indicates the crown was made in two sections. The diadem was made around 1660, the arches on top a century later. Lore also has it that the crown was stolen twice, once by British pirates in 1650 and once by revolutionary Simon Bolivar in 1812. The locals got the crown back from the pirates after three days of fighting in the streets. Bolivar returned it himself. To keep the crown safe from further incursions, the leading citizens of Popayan formed the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception. The crown was divided into six parts and stashed with members of the Confraternity only to be reunited once a year for religious ceremonies.

Whatever the kernels of truth in this story, the Crown of the Andes managed to survive while most other colonial gold objects were melted down and the gems recut in keeping with changing fashions. It would probably still be on the Marian statue’s head had the church not decided to sell the crown to fund a hospital, an orphanage and a home for the elderly. Pope Pius X granted the parish permission to sell the crown in 1914. Tsar Nicholas II reportedly showed some interest in acquiring it, but war, revolution and firing squad got in the way.

Other attempts to arrange the sell fell through for 20 years until Chicago wholesale jeweller and diamond exporter Warren J. Piper put together a syndicate of jeweler investors to acquire the crown from the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in 1936. He is thought to have paid around $125,000. Piper’s initial plan was to break apart the crown and sell the individual emeralds. Instead the crown went on tour and became a popular attraction. While spending most of its time in bank vaults, the Crown of the Andes spent the next 27 years doing the occasional personal appearance

It was sold at Sotheby’s London in 1963 for £55,000 (about $154,000, then; adjusted for inflation in today’s dollars that converts to just shy of $1.6 million).

The winning bid was made by the Asscher Diamond Company of Amsterdam. They were acting for someone else, however: jeweler Oscar Heyman whose company was actually the seller. According to a later federal investigation into the crown’s history engendered by a contested title and blackmail case, Piper failed to make his contracted payments on the crown and went into default in 1938. The Met’s provenance information confirms that in 1938 the crown changed hands to Oscar Heyman & Brothers, but most news articles say members of the syndicate owned it until the 1963 sale. Piper never said who all was a part of the syndicate. It’s possible Heyman was an investor and his company took over the payments after Piper’s default.

Anyway, Heyman bought the Crown of the Andes from himself and kept it in bank vaults only releasing it for occasional exhibitions. Oscar died in 1970 and his daughter Alice was the next owner. With all the hype and history behind the crown, when the crown next went up for auction at Christie’s in 1995, expectations were high. It seemed to have sold to a Latin American collector for $2.2 million, but apparently there was a reserve of $3 million on the piece, so it didn’t move after all. It took another 20 years, and God knows how much money ’cause the Met ain’t saying, for the Crown of the Andes to find a new forever home.

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Viking skeleton, wood coffin on display in York

Friday, December 4th, 2015

York was occupied by Vikings from 866 A.D. until the Anglo-Saxon King Eadred defeated Eric Bloodaxe, the last Viking ruler of York, in 954 A.D. and united England into a single kingdom. When the Vikings arrived, the Anglo-Saxon port city of Eoforwic was in decay. They renamed it Jorvik and developed it into a thriving center of trade with Viking Scandinavia and Dublin, the Byzantine Empire and the merchant networks of the Silk Road. Despite this rich history, what little evidence of Viking material culture surfaced in York was discovered by accident. The first professional excavation by the newly founded York Archaeological Trust only took place in 1972, and that was just a few small trenches dug under Lloyds Bank on Pavement. The trenches were unexpectedly productive, revealing up to 30 feet of archaeological layers and proving that the waterlogged, peaty soil of York was an excellent preserver of organic remains like timber, textiles, leather, seeds, plants, pollen, human parasite eggs and insects, an invaluable source of information about people’s daily lives in Jorvik.

The York Archaeological Trust (YAT) performed the first planned excavation in 1976 in Coppergate, the city’s ancient center, which was slated to be redeveloped into an open-air shopping center. From 1976 through 1981, the Trust excavated more than 1,000 square metres and 2,000 years of history. The remains of an entire street of Viking York survived thanks to the magic of peat: timber buildings, woven wattle used to make walls and pathways, fences, animal pens, shop fronts, artisan workshops, cesspits and wells. More than 40,000 objects were unearthed in the Coppergate excavation and more than 500,000 people visited the site during the dig.

The excavation was incorporated into the new development. It became part of the Jorvik Viking Centre, visible through the transparent floors of the museum which recreated the Viking city with period-accurate structures, manikins with faces recreated from 9th and 10th century skulls, and my favorite part, the pungent smells of Viking York which came highly recommended by SourceRunner and Duncan Armitage in this comment thread.

The York Archaeological Trust had another archaeological coup between October 1989 and July 1990 when it excavated graveyard of the lost church of Saint Benet in the Swinegate area of York. The church had stood on the site from the 8th century through the 14th, and archaeologists discovered more than 100 burials from the churchyard. A number of burials dated from Viking era — late 9th to the early 11th century — and included the exceptionally preserved remains of wooden coffins and lids.

One of these Viking-era burials from the Swinegate excavation has now gone on display in its wooden coffin at the Jorvik Viking Centre. This is the first time any of the Swinegate skeletons or coffins has gone on public display.

The condition of the wood gives this coffin national significance, as so few similar examples exist – particularly as this coffin would have been fairly fragile when first constructed, which tells archaeologists that it would have only been transported a short distance for burial. The coffin was made for a young woman, estimated at being aged between 26 and 35. Recent analysis of the bones reveals some of her life story– including that she had inadequate nutrition or disease as a child and degenerative joint disease in the spine and hips – but there is no indication of the cause of her death.

Over the last few weeks YAT’s conservation team have undertaken a thorough examination of the coffin to determine its structure and reveal how it was constructed. “The coffin is made from oak with pegged fastenings, and you can see that during construction, the piece of timber used for the lid of the coffin split and was repaired using a baton fastened inside, with the pegs cut flush on the outer surface to make the repair less obvious,” adds Sarah.

You can read the full reports of the 2015 reinvestigation of the skeletal remains and wood coffins on the York Archaeological Trust website. I particularly enjoyed the Woodworking Technology Report (pdf) and the Osteological Analysis (pdf).

The skeleton and coffin display is the vanguard of the Jorvik Viking Centre’s commemoration of the thousand year anniversary of King Canute’s accession to the throne of England in 1016. The Canute Millennial celebrations will kick off during next year’s 32nd annual Jorvik Viking Festival in February. If you’re in York for the festivities, there will be a lecture event at the Jorvik Viking Center on February 17th, 2016, at 7:00 PM about the skeleton and her coffin. York Archaeological Trust conservator Steve Allen will discuss the coffin, while osteoarchaeologist Malin Holst will talk about the skeleton.


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Trunk of undelivered 17th c. letters rediscovered

Monday, November 30th, 2015

Yale University music historian Rebekah Ahrendt was researching a theatrical troupe that entertained audiences in turn of the 18th century The Hague when she came across a notice in a 1938 French journal describing a collection of undelivered letters at a museum. Intrigued, Ahrendt tracked down the collection at the Museum voor Communicatie in The Hague where it had lain undisturbed and unremarked since 1926. She found a trunk waterproofed with sealskin and filled with 2,600 letters sent from France, Spain and the Spanish Netherlands between 1689 and 1707.

The letters were collected by The Hague postmasters Simon de Brienne and his wife, Maria Germain. Any letters that could not be delivered because the recipients could not be found, or if found they refused receipt or could not or would not pay the postage due, the couple kept. (At the time the recipient paid postage, not the sender.) Most postmasters destroyed such letters, but the de Briennes hoped someone might someday take delivery and pay the postage so they put them in the trunk as a kind of fingers-crossed savings account.

Simon de Brienne was good at making money. Born in France, he was a servant of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the younger son of German prince Frederick V, Elector Palatine, and maternal nephew of King Charles I of England. He was arrived in The Hague in 1669 and was appointed Postmaster seven years later. His wife was appointed postmistress in 1686. His new job didn’t stop Simon from working his royal connections. He was employed as chamberlain to William of Nassau, Prince of Orange, and when his boss became King William III of England, Scotland, and Ireland in the Glorious Revoultion of 1688, the Briennes went with him to England. As a trusted confidant, Simon was given a plum position as Keeper of the Wardrobe at Kensington Palace in 1689. Ten years later, he sold the office for £1550 and a cask of the best Burgundy wine. They returned to The Hague shortly thereafter.

The collection, still in Simon de Brienne’s original trunk, was bequeathed to the museum in 1926. Out of the 2,600 letters in the trunk, 2,000 are opened and 600 are sealed. They include missives from people from all walks of life — noblemen, merchants, singers, actors, spies, peasants, Hugenot exiles, women, men — and are written in French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and Latin. Most of the correspondence that has survived from this period was written by the elite. To have such a wide range of society represented in their own voice (many of the letters were written phonetically with little punctuation in the dialect of the writer rather than in the formal, educated hand of the highly literate) is unique.

One open letter from the collection has been transcribed and translated manages to delicately suggest a pregnancy scandal without actually coming out and saying it. It was sent to a wealthy Jewish merchant in The Hague.

“I am writing on behalf of your friend and mine and she realized as soon as she left the opera company in The Hague to go to Paris that she had made a terrible mistake. Now she needs your help to come back to The Hague. You can divine without difficulty the true cause of her despair. I cannot put it into so many words; what I ought to say to you is so excessive. Content yourself with thinking on it, and returning her to life by procuring her return.”

The letter wound up in de Brienne’s collection because it is marked “niet hebben,” which means it was refused.

It’s not just the content of the letters that are of interest to historians. Scholars who study paper, postal systems, economics, linguistics and seals will find in this collection a unique source of information from the late 17th and early 18th century. It will be an invaluable resource for the nascent study of letterlocking, the practice of folding a letter in complex ways to convert it into its own envelope.

Ahrendt has already made significant historical discoveries in her own specialty.

As a music historian, Ahrendt found the correspondence between musicians especially interesting and says the information these missives contain casts a different light on the development of the musical labor industry: “This archive is truly a cultural history of musicians. I was surprised to learn that musicians traveled so much during that time period. We have so few witnesses to describe what daily life was like for your average musician, and these letters tell of large networks of these musicians traveling frequently. This is completely different from what we previously believed about the history of musicians.”

Brienne also put his own records as postmaster in trunk, giving historians another unique view into the business of mail. The accounting books for incoming and outgoing mail lists the price for every letter.

blockquote>”We discovered how postal routes and the financial system of that time worked. There is documentation of the point at which you paid a rider or a boatman to transport your post. We learned about the connection between the post office in Hague and the post office in Paris. We even found nasty letters from the Parisian postmaster saying that he hadn’t been paid properly,” says Ahrendt.

This pearl of great price won’t just be available to those who are fortunate enough to study them in person. An interdisciplinary team of researchers from Yale University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Universities of Leiden, Groningen, and Oxford is working on digitizing this exceptional archive. The project is called Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered and the website is already live although the content is limited as of yet. Right now the Letters section is a slideshow of beautiful high resolution images of seals and letters, some with brief summaries describing the image, some labeled only with an archive number. Click on the icon with the four boxes in the bottom right corner of the screen to browse the letters index via a topic gallery instead.

Thanks to the latest scanning technology, the sealed letters won’t be opened, but they will seen nonetheless.

Dr Nadine Akkerman, from the University of Leiden, says: “Because early modern ink contained iron, incredibly delicate scanning can detect it on the paper. By scanning each layer of paper in a letter packet, we should be able to piece the letters back like jigsaw puzzles and read them without breaking the seals.”

Earlier this year they tested the technology by creating a bundle of 20 stacked letters, each written with quills and iron gall ink, folded using period accurate letterlocking formats and sealed with two different kinds of wax. The bundle was then scanned with high contrast TDI CT (Time Delay Integration, computed tomography) and the contents were revealed without damaging the folds and seals. This video is a fly-through of the test scan.

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Kitchen of Shakespeare’s last home found

Sunday, November 29th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the site of William Shakespeare’s last home, New Place, in Stratford-upon-Avon, have discovered the remains of the property’s kitchen. They have identified a fire hearth (the Tudor equivalent of an oven) and a cold pit (the fridge) and a brew house where the playwright’s staff would have made beer and preserved food by pickling and salting. They also found fragments of dishes and cups. The latest archaeological finds have made it possible to create accurate drawings of what New Place looked like in Shakespeare’s time.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has raised half the £5.25 million needed to restore and redesign the site of New Place from sources including the Heritage Lottery Fund. (Click here to help the Trust raise the second half.) The three sections of the property — Nash’s House, home of Shakespeare’s granddaughter Elizabeth and her husband Thomas Nast built adjacent to the New Place home, the Knot Garden, a sunken garden inspired by Jacobean designs installed on the grounds after World War I, and the Great Garden, a former priory garden incorporated into the New Place property in the mid-16th century — will be refurbished and reconceived as a museum and garden dedicated to Shakespeare, his life, family and works. The archaeological surveys of the site are part of this program.

The house that would become known as New Place was originally built by Hugh Clopton, a wealthy mercer (a merchant specializing in the trade of imported luxury fabrics and dress accessories) who had made his fortune in London where he served terms as Sheriff and Lord Mayor. He was a proud native son and benefactor of Stratford-upon-Avon, rebuilding a guild chapel, replacing a rickety wooden bridge with a beautiful stone arch bridge and leaving provisions in his will for further improvements to the city along with funds to help support maidens, scholars and apprentice mercers. Even as he held important guild and municipal offices in London, in about 1483 Clopton had a new house built for himself in his hometown on Chapel Street. It was the second largest house in town.

The property stayed in the Clopton family until the mid-16th century when it passed to the recusant Catholic Underhill family. Shakespeare purchased the house and property including gardens, two barns and an orchard, from William Underhill on May 4th, 1597, for £120 in silver. It was a grand home, with impressively wide frontage, 20 rooms and 10 fireplaces, but by the time Shakespeare bought it, the house, which had been described by antiquary John Leland sixty years earlier as a “praty house of bricke and tymbre” was in “great ruyne and decay and unrepayred.” Renovations began immediately. Shakespeare’s wife Anne seems to have moved in full-time right away; William split his time between Statford and London for a while before moving permanently into New Place in 1610. There he planted the first mulberry tree in Stratford, according to legend with his own two hands.

The Bard lived there until his death on April 23rd, 1616. He bequeathed the property to his daughter Susanna Hall who lived there until her death in 1649. It then went to her daughter Elizabeth. Elizabeth died in 1670. After her husband’s Thomas’ death in 1674, New Place was sold to Sir Edward Walker who in turn left it to his daughter, wife of Sir John Clopton. Thus by 1700, New Place once again belonged to the Clopton family. Sir John had it almost entirely rebuilt before 1702 for his son Hugh.

Sir Hugh Clopton took pride in the association of his family home with William Shakespeare. He opened New Place to visitors and told stories of questionable likelihood about finding epigrams scratched onto the windows by Shakespeare and his daughters (his only son, Hamnet, had died the year before they bought the house). The next owner would not be so genial.

Reverend Francis Gastrell, a canon of Lichfield Cathedral, bought the property from the Clopton estate in 1753. He had no interest in opening his home to literary pilgrims and was sick to death of people showing up at his house expecting to get a show the way they had in Sir Hugh’s day. In 1756, he chopped down the mulberry tree that was the focus of many a literary pilgrim’s attention thanks to the story that it had been planted by the Bard himself. In 1759, he got into a dispute with the city on whether he should pay the full tax rate or get a reduced rate because he lived part of the time in Lichfield. Vowing New Place would never be assessed again, he razed it to the ground.

Several depictions of New Place in the 18th century survive. Engraver and antiquary George Vertue visited Stratford in 1737. He sketched New Place and took notes describing the property as a two storey, half-timbered building with an attic, five gabled bays and a central gateway facing onto Chapel Street. Scholars now believe the Vertue sketch is not of the home itself, but of a gatehouse with servants’ quarters and a long gallery. There’s also an extant print of a drawing by Samuel Winter of the main house ca. 1759.

The New Place property was sold multiple times in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Parts of it were sold piecemeal and became detached from the original property. What had once been the Great Garden became the Royal Shakespearean Theatre in 1829, but it didn’t even survive 50 years. Shakespeare enthusiast J.O. Halliwell launched a fundraising campaign in 1861 to acquire the full grounds of New Place. He cleared some parts of the property of its later construction and excavated the site in 1862 and 1863, finding parts of the original 15th century home and the 18th century rebuild. In 1872 the former Royal Shakespearean Theatre was demolished. The grounds were redesigned as a pleasure garden and in 1884, the entire New Place property was transferred the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Because the site is now a listed park and garden, so the Trust can’t just reconstruct the house as they think it was when Shakespeare lived there. Instead, they’ve designed an imaginative way to convey the important areas of the structure within the parameters of the garden. Brass lines in the ground will mark the footprint and key areas of the previous structures. Halliwell’s excavations will be of aid in this because he never had them backfilled which has helped archaeologists determine which part of the buildings were in which location and where else to dig to find undisturbed archaeological features. The garden will be re-landscaped with themes evoking Shakespeare.

The redesign was originally scheduled to be complete in time to commemorate the anniversary of William Shakespeare death in April of 2016, but the archaeological discoveries have pushed back the opening date to the summer.

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Speaking of the Rijksmuseum…

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

Some of you might remember the greatest of all flashmobs that was created to celebrate the reopening of the museum and the return of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch to its original location. It’s been more than two years since I posted it, and I still regularly rewatch the video. It’s just so, so good. A quick refresher for those of you not as obsessed as I or for anyone who may have missed it the first time:

The only bad thing about that sublime video is that it’s too short. I said at the time that I wished there were a director’s cut so we could see more of the story as it unfolds. Well, there isn’t a director’s cut, but there’s a making of video! It was uploaded a week after the first one and since I watched the embed on the blog entry rather than going to the YouTube channel, despite my repeated viewings I didn’t realize the second one was there. I’m making up for it now, though. I’ve already watched it three times. I love the curator puttering around like a kid at Christmas fixing people’s costumes and props. Click the CC icon for English subtitles.

There’s one thing I wish they’d addressed that has niggled at me all these years: why did they cast the taller man as Willem van Ruytenburch (in the fabulous yellow outfit) and the shorter man as Frans Banninck Cocq (in the center with the red sash)? In the painting van Ruytenburch’s shortness is very noticeable, and since he was Banninck Cocq’s lieutenant, their comparative height was a meaningful distinction that communicated their difference in status. The curator sniffed about the purple outfit one of the guards was wearing as inaccurate. Surely he had something to say about the choice to make van Ruytenburch so tall.

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Vermeer’s Little Street discovered

Friday, November 20th, 2015

The exact street in Delft that Johannes Vermeer depicted in his 1658 painting View of Houses in Delft, better known as The Little Street, has been identified. It’s the Vlamingstraat, at the current house numbers 40 and 42, and even though the original buildings are gone, it’s eerie how similar the modern scene is to the 17th century one even though the details are very different.

The Little Street can be regarded as “the earliest ‘portrait’ of the exterior of an ordinary house in northern European art”, according to Grijzenhout. It represents yet another indication of Johannes Vermeer’s innovation.

For nearly a century, scholars have debated whether The Little Street depicts a real pair of buildings or if it was conjured up in Vermeer’s imagination. The most widely accepted theory was that it represented a view from the inn owned by Vermeer, the Mechelen. His back windows overlooked almshouses in Voldersgracht, although the scene would not have been quite as in the painting so the artist must have produced his own interpretation. The almshouses were demolished in 1661 and a 20th century building now houses the Vermeer Centrum, which presents reproductions of the artist’s work.

University of Amsterdam professor of Art History Frans Grijzenhout tossed out the theory and found the site by consulting what some might consider a painfully mundane city record from 1667: the ledger of the dredging of the canals in the town of Delft, also known as the quay dues register. The register records the taxes paid by everyone with a canal-front home for the dredging of the canal and maintenance of the quay. Because homeowners only paid taxes for the canal works in front of their property, the ledger is meticulously precise about the width every house and alley between them, accurate to around 15 centimeters (6 inches).

Grijzenhout found a property on the Vlamingstraat, a lower-end neighborhood in eastern Delft, which had two houses 6.3 metres (about 21 feet) wide separated by two alleys about 1.2 meters (four feet) wide. Additional historical research, Google Maps data and analysis of the modern-day location confirmed that Vlamingstraat 40-42 fits. No other property in Delft matches the unique configuration in The Little Street.

The houses that stand on the site now were built in the late 1800s. The reason the painting and street today look alike even though the buildings are so different is that bricked entryway into the alley next to the house on the right. It’s a skinnier opening than it used to be thanks to the larger house on the left, but it is still recognizable.

Grijzenhout also discovered during his research that the house on the right of the painting was owned by Ariaentgen Claes van der Minne, Vermeer’s widowed aunt. She sold tripe and that alley next to her house was nicknamed the Penspoort or Trip Gate after her business. Vermeer’s mother and sister lived across the canal from the aunt, so this was a view he must have seen very many times. It’s even possible that the figures in the painting are family members; maybe that’s his aunt working in the doorway of her house. The personal connection explains why he selected this scene to paint. Out of the 35 known surviving works by Vermeer, just two of them are townscapes, both of them in Delft. The second is View of Delft (1660-1) and it’s more of a skyline scene. It is now part of the permanent collection of the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague.

The Little Street and the discovery of its location are the focus of an exhibition running through March 13th, 2016, at the Rijksmuseum. After that, the exhibition will move to the Museum Prinsenhof Delft from March 25th through July 17th, 2016. The Museum Prinsenhof Delft is thrilled to host the first Vermeer painting to visit the city in 60 years, and for it to be a painting so important to the history of the city makes it all the more special. Visitors to the museum will be able to see the painting and then walk in Vermeer’s footsteps to the street itself. The museum is going all out to give tourists the full Vermeer experience, creating walking routes and a virtual reality app that will put people in the middle of Vermeer’s Delft.

Google Art Project has put together a neat virtual exhibition that combines high resolution views of the painting with Google Street View tours of the Vlamingstraat location.

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Second Lod mosaic found during construction of visitor center for first

Monday, November 16th, 2015

The Lod mosaic, one of the largest and most complete Roman mosaic floors ever found, was discovered by accident during highway construction in the Israeli city of Lod, 10 miles southeast of Tel Aviv, in 1996. The initial excavation revealed a floor 50 feet long by 27 feet wide with a series of kaleidoscopic mosaics depicting animals at hunt, great sea creatures and fish crowding ships, urns and floral garlands, birds perched on branches and small, individual birds and fish all framed with bold black lines, geometric shapes and intricate knots. The total mosaic covered 600 square feet and was composed of two million individual tesserae (tiles).

Pottery sherds and coins found littering the floor dated it to the early 4th century A.D., and while no other parts of the structure were found, archaeologists believe it was a private home whose frescoed mud-brick walls had collapsed onto the floor preserving the mosaics for 1,700 years. Different sections of the mosaic were installed at different times and designed by different artists. The three north panels — individual animals in hexagonal frames, the largest panel with smaller animal and hunting scenes in triangular frames around a central octagonal mountain hunting scene, the great marine scene — were made by one mosaicist. The two south panel with birds on branches and fish and birds in frames were made by another. The urn and garland panel between them was made by a third artist, the least accomplished of the three, and was likely the last one to be installed. It probably took around three years for the whole floor to be completed.

The exceptional beauty and rarity of find vaulted the mosaic to international fame. The mosaic was opened to the public for one weekend and during those two days 10,000 people came to see it. The Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) didn’t have the budget to properly conserve such a huge masterpiece, so after that one weekend of public display, the floor was reburied for its own protection.

In 2009, a $2.5 million gift from the Shelby White and the Leon Levy Foundation gave the Israel Antiquities Authority the wherewithal to re-excavate the mosaic, lift it from the floor (they found footprints and drawing lines in the mortar bedding), clean it and conserve it for exhibition. The three sections of the north panel, the best preserved and most intricate design, toured the United States starting in 2010 and moved on to Europe in 2013. It is now at the Cini Gallery in Venice.

The donation also made possible the construction of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Archaeological Center, a museum dedicated to the mosaic built on the discovery site. The traveling panels were reinstalled in their original location and the building went up around the floor. The center was originally scheduled to open in late 2014, but that date was pushed back, and with good reason. Between June and November of 2014, IAA archaeologists surveyed an unexcavated area south of the previously unearthed mosaic in advance of construction.
The IAA announced Monday that during the survey they discovered another huge mosaic just yards away from where the first one was found.

The second Lod mosaic is 36 feet by 42 feet and is part of the same private villa. The newly discovered mosaic shares the same themes of animals at hunt, fish, birds, urns and floral elements, and is of outstanding artistic quality. This mosaic decorated the floor of the villa’s courtyard, while the first mosaic decorated the floors of several reception rooms where the homeowner would have entertained clients and guests. The courtyard was surrounded by porticos, covered walkways, with lines of columns supporting the ceiling, none of which survive, although numerous fragments of wall frescoes have been recovered.

This elegant, expensively appointed home was part of a wealthy enclave during the Roman and Byzantine eras. Founded by Canaanites around 5600–5250 B.C., the city of Lydda was destroyed by Rome during the First Jewish War (66 A.D.) and besieged in the Second Jewish War (115-117 A.D.) Much of the Jewish population was slaughtered and the Christian population increased significantly in the years afterwards. In 200 A.D. the emperor Septimius Severus granted it city status and named it Colonia Lucia Septimia Severa Diospolis. It was the district capital and a regional center of commerce and government administration. The owner of the villa was part of the city elite, either an official or a rich merchant.

The site is bounded by modern buildings on the east side, so the entire home cannot be excavated. The new discovery will be incorporated into the visitor center.

For an in-depth examination of the first Lod mosaic and its significance, watch these videos compiled by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. First is a short film documenting the original find and the lifting of the mosaic in 2009. The next to are lectures given during the mosaic’s stop at the Met in 2011 about the discovery of the mosaic, the interpretation of its imagery and the influence of Rome on local art.

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Museo dell’Opera del Duomo reopens in Florence

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

After more than 20 years of planning and execution and 45 million euros spent, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (the Museum of the Works of the Cathedral) in Florence reopened to the public on Thursday. More than 750 artworks — paintings, textiles, architectural models, sculptures — are on display in a completely redesigned space that finally allows the museum to exhibit monumental pieces from the exterior and interior of the Duomo, the Baptistery of San Giovanni and Giotto’s Campanile (bell tower). The Museum of the Works now houses the largest collection of Florentine sculptures from the Middle Ages and Renaissance in the world, statues and reliefs in marble, bronze and precious metals by such towering figures as Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello, Luca della Robbia, Antonio Pollaiolo, Andrea del Verrocchio, Antonio del Pollaiolo and Michelangelo Buonarotti.

More than 200 of these works have never before been on public display before because exhibition space was so limited. The acquisition in 1998 of the Theater of the Intrepids, an 18th century playhouse built on the site of Renaissance artists’ workshops that had once belonged to the Opera, allowed the museum to more than double its space. Because the theater had long since been gutted and was being used as a parking lot, there was nothing of historical or architectural interest to preserve. This allowed the architects to restructure the old museum and the theater, fusing them together into a single logical space. There are now more than 6,000 square meters (64,600 square feet) of room for the masterpieces from the history of the construction of this great church to spread out and breathe in 25 rooms over three floors. To accommodate monumental pieces that were made to be viewed from afar, several large halls were created ranging in size from sixty to a hundred feet long with ceilings twenty to fifty feet high.

The flexibility afforded by the theater large, empty theater building solved the museum’s thorniest problem: how to properly exhibit the elements of the Duomo’s original facade designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in the late 13th, early 14th century. Arnolfo’s facade was incomplete at the time of his death (sometime between 1302 and 1310), covering only the bottom third of the church. Standing next to the multicolored marble facades of the Baptistery and Campanile, its whiteness where finished and roughness where unfinished were much criticized. Over the years various contests were launched to find a solution but they came to naught. Finally in 1587, the Medici Grand Duke ordered the court architect to demolish the facade and replace it with a brick veneer painted in Mannerist style. In 1688 that was repainted with fake columns and architectural details on the occasion of the wedding of Grand Duke Ferdinand to Violante Beatrice of Bavaria. That paint job was faded to all but nothingness by the mid-19th century. The white, green and red marble facade we know today is shockingly recent, designed by Emilio de Fabris to coordinate with the other striped structures in the complex and constructed between 1876 and 1886.

The Opera managed to keep most of the facade, despite the inexplicable lack of care taken to preserve the works during demolition, in its store rooms. It also kept in its archives the only surviving drawing of Arnolfo’s original facade: a 17th century copy of a sketch drawn by Bernardino Poccetti in 1587 just before demolition. When the Museo dell’Opera opened in 1891, the monumental figures from the facade couldn’t possibly fit. The best it could do was exhibit a little wooden maquette of the facade while more than 100 original pieces — 40 statues, 60+ architectural features — stagnated in storage.

The lofty spaces of the theater gave the museum the opportunity to do something extremely cool about the facade: reconstruct the whole damn thing indoors. Using the Poccetti sketch as a guide, architects recreated the 14th century facade along one wall of the 1,500-square-foot great hall. The sculptures and reliefs were positioned in their original locations, with a few select pieces of particular importance being brought down to the museum floor so visitors can actually see them while plaster copies were put in their original places.

Across from the reconstructed Arnolfo facade is another monumental installation: the Baptistery facade. The famous Gates of Paradise, Ghiberti’s gilded bronze panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament in high relief that once graced the east wall of the Baptistery, the north door, an earlier work by Ghiberti made to match the first doors by Andrea Pisano, and said Pisano doors, all extensively restored, are installed in the facade, topped by the monumental sculptures that topped them in the 16th century. (Copies of the doors now take the brunt of the weather and pollution in the Baptistery itself.)

Other rooms are dedicated to important works and history, like Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene (1455), Michelangelo’s unfinished and all the more beautiful for it Bandini Pietà (ca. 1547–1553), and the two intricately carved choir lofts that once stood above the doors of the sacristies inside the Duomo, one by Luca della Robbia (completed in 1438), the other by Donatello (completed in 1439). These masterpieces of early Renaissance sculpture were removed by order of groomzilla Grand Duke Ferdinand because he considered them too passe’ for his fashionable wedding. He replaced them with massive Baroque choir lofts.

The great dome of the cathedral designed and built by architect, artist, goldsmith and inventor Filippo Brunelleschi also get its own hall. It houses original wooden models of the cupola and lantern and, incredibly, some of the pulleys and gear Brunelleschi devised to get construction materials 170 feet off the ground. I haven’t been able to determine if the 9-foot scale model of the dome discovered under the floor of the theater during construction in 2012 has been integrated into the museum as was discussed at the time.

(Speaking of Brunelleschi’s dome, you have to watch this documentary about its construction. Master masons from the United States go to Florence and join in a project to build a scale model of the dome to see if they can figure out how he did it. It is absolutely riveting viewing. It’s fascinating to see Brunelleschi’s genius brought to life by masters who clearly feel the noble history of their craft with every brick they lay.)

Basically, this is a whole new museum. If you’ve been to the Museo dell’Opera before, you have all the reason you need to get back there stat because its previous incarnation bears no resemblance to its current splendor.

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